The conservative justices of the US supreme court just made America an even more dangerous, even more violent place.
The decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Assn, Inc v Bruen took on a simple and commonsense New York state law requiring individuals to have a license in order to own a gun, and requiring people who want to carry a concealed pistol or revolver out in public to demonstrate a particular need to be toting a secret gun around. That law has been on the books in New York since the early 1900s.
The supreme court just invalidated it in a decision that is an extreme expansion of the largely invented and now near-limitless individual right to own and carry deadly weapons. And it doesn’t bode well for future efforts to impose any restrictions on guns whatsoever – to make it as difficult to get a gun as to get, say, a driver’s license or an abortion. This radical, nihilistic decision potentially calls a great many state gun laws into question – and will propel the US further toward mass gun violence and a culture of death.
The case was brought by two New York men who, according to the opinion, “both applied for unrestricted licenses to carry a handgun in public based on their generalized interest in self-defense”. The court, in an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, held that “New York’s proper-cause requirement violates the Fourteenth Amendment by preventing law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms in public for self-defense”.
Only in America does a “generalized interest in self-defense” give an individual the nearly unlimited right to own a deadly weapon and the right to put everyone else in a community at risk; only in America is the supposed right to carry a hidden deadly weapon in public an “ordinary self-defense need” that supersedes the rights of everyone else to be safe from gun violence.
In no other wealthy democracy is any of this “ordinary”.
And in no other wealthy democracy are America’s rate of ordinary gun violence.
This case comes on the tail of two decades of an increasingly conservative supreme court radically expanding access to guns. And as gun access has radically expanded, so has gun violence. Last year saw a staggering number of gun deaths: more than 20,700, and that’s excluding suicides, which in 2020 accounted for more than half of gun deaths. There were hundreds of mass shootings last year and a far greater number of the handgun killings that have now simply become part of the fabric of American culture, so commonplace that they often don’t even make the nightly news.
What’s particularly striking about this case, though, is that the court largely sets aside any concern for public safety. After all, there are good public safety reasons why a state may not want to grant any individual the legal right to carry a concealed gun in public for no reason other than they want one. More guns equal more gun violence – that’s a clear calculation, bolstered by decades of research, at this point undeniable (except by the people who are politically motivated to deny facts and reality).
New York has long concluded, pretty reasonably, that it does not want any random person carrying a gun on the subway, or into a school, or into a grocery store. Having a bunch of armed people around increases the chances of any conflict turning deadly; it increases the chances of an accident turning deadly; it just about guarantees that people with no need for a gun who are simply macho, insecure, paranoid and prone to violence will be able to get their hands on one and enjoy the freedom of carrying it anywhere they wish.
The supreme court, in an opinion signed by the institution’s self-styled “states’ rights” conservatives, has said that states do not have the right to regulate guns in this way.
This decision comes roughly a month after a man armed with a weapon of war murdered 19 children and two adults in Uvalde, Texas, as the police sat helplessly outside. It comes roughly a month after the murder of 10 people at a Buffalo, New York, grocery store by a white supremacist. In the wake of those two shootings – simply the latest mass slaughters of African Americans and schoolchildren – American politicians have done absolutely nothing to rein in our out-of-control gun culture and our astounding rates of gun violence.
More Americans have been killed by guns since 1968 than soldiers have died in all of America’s wars combined. An astounding 1.5 million Americans died by gunfire between 1986 and 2017. In the US, nearly 80% of homicides are gun-related; in the UK, it’s 4%. And for every 100 US residents, there are more than 120 guns – the highest rate of civilian gun ownership anywhere in the world (Yemen, with about 53 guns for every 100 people, ranks a distant second).
Over and over again, the US relives the now-famous headline from the Onion: “’No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”
The reality is that while mass shootings are devastating and shocking, handguns toted around by individual citizens wreak more widespread, if quieter, havoc. Part of what the New York law is trying to prevent is the violent escalation of the kinds of altercations that have already become much more pitched during Covid: People screaming at customer service workers; aggressive drivers fueling road-rage incidents; patients and family members threatening and attacking healthcare workers; adults losing their minds at school board meetings. These kinds of rage incidents are typically not pre-planned, but they can turn deadly fast if one party (or more) is armed. A law may not keep a gun out of the hands of a careful and premeditated killer. But a law like New York’s has kept guns out of the hands of average if violence-inclined citizens while they are in public. That reality is no longer.
The devastating truth is that the current court is made of up of a majority of nihilistic rightwing radicals seeking to impose their vision of a heavily armed male-dominated Christian theocracy on the rest of us. This gun case is only a taste of where we’re headed: toward more violence, more death and fewer individual rights – aside, of course, from the ability to own, conceal, and carry just about anywhere as many weapons of death and destruction as one pleases.